The 2010 Round-Up: The Top 10

December 30, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Let me be clear about this: this is my personal Top 10. It does not represent an attempt to provide a "greatest" list nor is there any pretense of objectivity. This is as subjective as it gets. I'll leave it to someone else to determine the relative quality of these motion pictures. All I can say by putting them on this list is that they represent my favorites of the year.

The list is populated from a group of candidates I saw theatrically between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2010. Some of the films I saw early in the year, which were technically holdovers from 2009, were eligible. (In fact, two were accorded Honorable Mention status.) There are some pictures (notably Blue Valentine and Another Year) that I have been unable to see in 2010; they will be eligible for the 2011 list.

One final comment about the concept of a Top 10 list. Every year, I read critics who grumble about having trouble finding ten films that deserve to be mentioned. For that to be the case, they must have a different view of what a "Top 10" list constitutes. For me, it's simply the ten movies for which I had the greatest appreciation. As long as I have seen at least ten titles, I can compile such a list, although its value diminishes with a smaller number of candidates. If I get to the point where I can't find ten recommendable productions in a calendar year, then it's time to stop going to theaters.

These are presented in reverse numerical order, with #1 coming last.

Honorable Mention (alphabetical): Fish Tank, How to Train Your Dragon, The Kids Are All Right, Red Riding Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Secret in Their Eyes, White Ribbon

#10: Love and Other Drugs: Despite its being roundly dismissed by a majority of critics, I found this romance to be honest and mostly free of sentimentality. I believed the characters and thought the actors (Jake Gyllenhaal and Ann Hathaway) displayed excellent chemistry. The frank nudity, so uncommon for high profile stars in a mainstream release, is welcome, if only for its daring. The aspect of the film that could have worked better - the satirical examination of the drug industry - could have been more biting but, even with that flaw, there is enough in this film to make it one of my favorites of the year.

#9: The Social Network: Many will probably be surprised that this didn't land higher on the list, especially considering how it has been sweeping critics' awards. However, while I appreciate what the team of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin accomplished by using a fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg's life as the foundation for a modern American tragic comedy, The Social Network has one major failing for me. Its forays into exploring how social networking has changed the 21st century cultural landscape are facile and unsatisfying (understandable, however, when one learns that Sorkin is largely computer illiterate). A very good movie with some memorable performances, but for me it misses greatness.

#8: The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest): Had installments #2 and #3 maintained the high level of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Millennium Trilogy would have easily claimed the top spot. Unfortunately, the series lost steam as it progressed, with The Girl Who Played with Fire slipping a notch, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest tumbling farther. Still, the three movies provide memorable characters and engaging mystery/thriller storylines. Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth is a remarkable characterization. It will be interesting to see how the American version compares when it is released.

#7: Flipped: No one saw Flipped, and it's a shame. Part of the problem was a bungling of the marketing, with the film sliding unheralded into only a few theaters in early September with no fanfare. The disappointing thing about the lack of studio support for Rob Reiner's latest is that it's easily the best movie he has made since the height of his creative peak, which occurred in the '80s and early '90s. Flipped is a great little love story about pre-teen kids whose feelings for one another "flip" over time, and it's more than worth seeking out on video. One of the great things about living in this era is that undiscovered theatrical gems don't have to remain forever lost.

#6: Rabbit Hole: Most movies about grief are maudlin and overwrought. The exceptions are uncommon, but Rabbit Hole is among their number. This is a challenging motion picture, especially for those who have a child and more so for those who have lost one. It's raw and honest and features an excellent performance from Nicole Kidman and solid work from Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest. Those who venture into a theater playing Rabbit Hole with a reasonable expectation of what they are going to experience will find the result emotionally draining and ultimately satisfying.

#5: Black Swan: With its lurid, evocative cinematography, cryptic storyline (that demands a second viewing), and occasional flirtation with exploitation, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is quite a package. It's a puzzle that demands concentration to unravel and, even for those who study it incessantly, not all the questions have a definitive answer. Like a cat with a mouse, Aronofsky toys with his audience, but the experience is far more enjoyable for the viewer than it is for the feline's plaything. A strong leading performance by Natalie Portman and solid support by Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, and Barbara Hershey make this a trippy, haunting must-see for anyone who appreciates the so-called "mind fuck" genre.

#4: Toy Story 3: With the third Toy Story movie, Pixar again strikes gold, proving there may not be a more creatively rich studio on the North American continent. As sequels go, there's nothing obligatory about this one; it's not a tired retread. Instead, it takes themes hinted at by its predecessors and expands them, delving into questions about mortality and what we lose when making the transition from childhood to adulthood. Pretty impressive stuff for an animated film. When I heard that Pixar planned to make a sequel to Cars, I was skeptical, but their achievement with Toy Story 3 is a reminder not to jump to an early judgment where these filmmakers are concerned.

#3: True Grit: The original True Grit, with its iconic performance by John Wayne, is an American classic. The Coen Brothers' re-interpretation, which is derived from the source novel, is an even better movie. It overshadows the 1969 film in every way except perhaps Wayne's performance (which Jeff Bridges wisely does not attempt to ape or eclipse). The lack of attention being paid to this film in the end-of-the-year meat market of awards lists is surprising, but it can be at least in part attributed to poor marketing by Paramount Pictures. Whether you love the original or have never seen it, this one is worth a trip to the theater or, at the very least, a DVD rental.

#2: Inception: Christopher Nolan thinks big and, thanks to the huge audience he has built as a result of his two Batman movies, he has earned the clout to make pretty much any movie he wants to. For this between-Batman interlude, he chose the mind-bending Inception, which toys with a lot of futuristic and existential issues and ends with a question to which there is no definitive answer. Inception was among my most anticipated titles of 2010, and it did not disappoint. Until a week before Christmas, I had it penciled in as #1.

#1: The King's Speech: This film is old-fashioned movie-making at its best, with the focus on impeccable period details, top-notch acting, characters, plot, and relationships. It's the kind of motion picture that restores one's faith in the industry. Given the cast and the subject matter, I expected it to be good, but I didn't expect it to be this good. It's not hard to understand how and why it won the Audience Award at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. Looking from the outside, it may appear a little stuffy and high-brow, but The King's Speech is a rousing tale about redemption and the triumph of the individual. In even the best of movie years, this would have easily landed a Top 10 slot. This year, I didn't have even a moment's doubt placing it at #1.